Saturday, June 15, 2024

The last class of MSU swimming graduates, erasing the face of the varsity sport off campus

As the morning’s first rays of sunshine beam into Michigan State University's Wonders Hall dormitories, the melodies of nestling birds don't stir residents awake, but the horns and hums of freight trains steaming along Trowbridge Road do

The scene was the same in the fall semester of 2020, but instead of hundreds of underclassmen filling the dorms, it was just a handful of student athletes.  

The halls of Wonders were visited by the crisis of the outside world in the form of several COVID-19 testings per week, quarantine crackdowns and anxiety-filled team meetings discussing who would be allowed to attend team activities. 

The tumultuous times of COVID-19 were uniquely complicated for the swim and dive team.

For them, the first semester was not only defined by COVID-19 policies, but also the decision by administration to permanently terminate swimming and diving at MSU

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During their remaining three years on campus, the class wasn’t defined by their athletic accolades, but instead their steadfast commitment to maintaining the almost century old legacy of MSU swimming and diving

The university argued poor infrastructure and finances during the COVID-19 pandemic were factors in their decision making to get rid of the program and wipe swimming and diving off the face of campus.

Attempting to bring the program back, the team rallied across social media with the “Battle For Spartan Swim & Dive” campaign, voicing concerns at board meetings and filing a Title IX lawsuit against the university.  

“Our year of swimming was spent fighting to get a team back,” marketing senior Kylie Goit said. “It's so backwards, because it's supposed to be when you reached your accomplishment you wanted–to swim in college. Instead, we spent it trying to fight the school that we committed to.”

There was traction in getting the team back in 2023 after in-person meetings with former MSU Interim President Teresa Woodruff and Athletic Director Alan Haller, but the team was misled and progress strayed.

A silver lining of the constant false hope and let downs by the university was that it brought the team closer.

“We were here for each other through the hard parts, multiple hard parts, we kind of have a connection that I don't think a lot of people can say they have,” marketing senior Rachel Aycock said.  

Along with fighting for the program's renewal, the team navigated their newfound free time and explored new avenues outside of swimming during their college experience

Some turned to academics, others pursued career options, but for all, the ingrained identity of being a swimmer was suddenly severed

“I think that for me, if someone asked me what my identity was, and I was still swimming, I'd say ‘I'm a swimmer,’ and that would be it,” accounting senior Allison Haak said

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The program being cut forced Haak out of her comfort zone, she said, allowing her to explore her career and what college is like for non-student athletes.

Haak said she learned the valuable life lesson on how to navigate the unplanned

“Even if something that feels so difficult and hard to deal with, and everything's changing all at once, it really isn't the end of the world, and that I will get through it,” Haak said. “Any problems that arise like losing a job or any difficulty like that, I think I am more prepared to navigate.”

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For mechanical engineering senior Sydney Kelly, her identity of being a swimmer wasn’t taken away. She continued to compete the remainder of her three years on campus at the club level, winning several events each year at the College Club Swimming National Championships

“It was hard to lose the varsity team, but it made me realize that I'm always gonna swim,” Kelly said. “I'm always gonna be a swimmer. I love swimming.”

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Computer science senior Evan Stanislaw said the identity “change up” was going to happen eventually. For most, swimming in college is an end goal, as only two people per event in the country make it to the Olympics

“I think I was able to adjust and learn more about what I'm doing in school and different extracurricular activities that I never thought I'd get into,” he said

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Despite the strange first year on campus, Stanislaw was able to make “friends for life.” While only three out of the nine in the 2024 men’s swimming class stayed at MSU when the program was cut, Stanislaw gained lifelong friends: Stephan Freitag and Cris Gore.

Steph and I, we always had a little thing where we go up on Munn and bring a couple of friends every once in a while. But really the biggest thing is we'd go up there and just look up at the stars and talk about life, which is a thing that I feel most guys aren't able to do as much. Where it's just a completely relaxed environment and it's all just love for each other. That's one thing I'll definitely never forget.

Evan Stanislaw

“I couldn't have asked for any better guys to stay here with the rest of the three years with,” Stanislaw said. “I think we've grown as a group tremendously and have been able to thrive outside of not being able to swim anymore.” 

Mechanical engineering senior Stephan Freitag called back the hard times he faced freshman year when thinking about the years of memories that administration seemingly took away from him. Freitag said he’ll never forgive the university, but that the decision allowed him to put energy into other aspects of his life, like his studies, friendships, other sports and even learning guitar

“As you went on, you realized that there's more to you than swimming,” Freitag said

I think I've actually explored more, and I would not have been able to do what I what I'm doing today if we didn't get cut. It's just like, one door closes, another one opens, and a better one opened.

Stephan Freitag

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Aycock said the program being cut helped her gain a better relationship with her extracurriculars and evaluate how different activities can affect her life without it consuming her whole life.

“It gave me time to really evaluate who I was and what I wanted to do,” she said.  

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Aycock now coaches younger swimmers in her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. She tries to remind the younger generation of swimmers that she’s proud of them no matter their success in the pool.

“It just kind of gave me a new outlook on life,” Aycock said. “Things can be taken away from you, so just really appreciate what you get, and the time that you do have, and really just enjoy the little moments.”

Aycock leaned into academics after the program was terminated, graduating with a 4.0 GPA

Human capital and society senior Cris Gore said the one major thing he gained was greater success in school

“Just doing better in school–that was one thing I gained with the team getting cut,” he said. “It's been more time for me to focus on school, applying for jobs and internships.” 

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Forensics senior Olivia Starzomski said improving her mental health has been the biggest positive outcome of the program being cut

Starzomski came from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario as one of the top recruits from the class and was expected to make waves for the program in Breaststroke. Moving countries for MSU, she said she felt pressure to perform from family, teammates and coaches, but also from herself

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“Swimming definitely took a toll on my mental health, so improving that has been a big change in my life,” Starzomski said.  

Goit relished in the ability to slow down after the team was cut

She said she now has the freedom to do things she loves in life like spending time with family and friends, cooking and being outdoors.  

“All the things that I didn't have time for prior are now some of my favorite things, and I cherish those moments,” Goit said

Getting caught really gave me the opportunity and the courage to do different things in life. And I think in this next chapter, that's one thing I really want to continue doing.

Kylie Goit

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Visible proof of the swim team continues to disappear, from the outdoor pool being emptied and covered with fresh grass and the hanging broken goggles in half-emptied girls locker room, to the swimmers themselves graduating.

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One thing that won’t disappear is the last class’s memorable moments with teammates

A collection of memories came from the “swim houses,” which were close in proximity just off of Grand River Avenue. The boys' houses of 121 Beal St. and 140 Center St. and the girls' house of 135 Center St. have been a part of the MSU swimming legacy for over two decades

Gore lived at 121 Beal St., referred to as “121” during his sophomore and junior year

“Living at the swim house was probably my favorite memory,” Gore said

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Goit said that simply sitting on the girls' house porch and walking over to the boys’ houses for a team cookout or party was one of her favorite memories.

“When I think about them, I can just like picture everyone on the team space,” she said. “That was the swim team.”

Haak agreed that the houses hold a special place in her heart and are an unforgettable part of the program.  

“I know for a fact that one day, I'll come back and visit this campus to point out to my kids and be like, ‘those really be upperclassmen houses we would always go to on Tuesday nights when we didn’t have practice on Wednesday,'" she said

I remember playing card games on Riley Szara's floor with me Sheridan, Sydney, her and Travis and we're all teaming up against Travis to try and take him down in some stupid game. Or playing Settlers of Catan and he's hoarding all the brick, and we're just frustrated, just little things like that.

Allison Haak

Like for members of any swim team, small habits define teammates during the long hard practices

For Coach Matt Gianiodis, or “G,” it was his ability to put the swimmers at ease by calling them “kid,” or on edge by playing Maroon 5 for an entire two-hour practice

For Aycock, it was the smacking of gum during each practice, Freitag, his underwater abilities, Gore, his ring bubble supremacy and Kelly, her abominable reaction time off the starting blocks

The team got to experience some years-long traditions, like the men’s vs. women’s scavenger hunt across campus, and Goodwill Classic, or “GWC,” the men's beer pong tournament.

During the COVID-19 year, new traditions were forged, like walking to Tasty Twist as a team from the dorms

Despite the two mile walk from Wonders Hall, “we’d always just end up there,” Starzomski said.  

There isn’t just one memory about being on the team that struck Freitag.  

“I'd say the whole time here was my favorite memory,” he said.  

Advertising management senior Lindsey Witte said she’s moving forward with the resiliency and love that the program gave her

“Swim will have a special place in my heart forever,” she said

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As rays leak into the blinds of Wonders Hall for generations of new Spartans, they may never know that there was a swim team at MSU, but it doesn’t take away the profound impact that the swimmers left on the university and the team culture built by old and now new alumni.

Editor’s note: Audrey Richardson was a member of the women’s swim and dive program before the program was cut in 2020. Her teammates shared their stories with her to recount their time as a part of the team and their time at the university since their swimming career has ended

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